The plot is conventionally provocative: in the aftermath of a high school sex scandal, a group of teenage girls become aware of their own power. However, in The Rehearsal, the first novel by Canadian-born, New Zealand-raised Eleanor Catton, the plot is not the point.
Throughout the novel, Catton obscures the line between reality and fantasy. A group of drama students decide to use the recent sex scandal as fodder for their end-of-year production. The novel’s chapters alternate between the drama students’ points of view and those of a group of girls loosely connected to the scandal, but it’s never entirely clear whether the latter scenes are actual events or merely the students’ re-enactments of them. Stanley, a student at the drama school, begins an affair with Isolde, whose sister is the central figure in the scandal. Stanley and Isolde are not so much characters as performers, even in their most intimate moments. As they begin to bizarrely recreate the events of the scandal, their actions and reactions are informed by movies and TV.
But does any of this actually happen, or are Stanley and Isolde merely performers? The novel, which resembles a kind of literary hall of mirrors, suggests that such distinctions are unimportant, that genuine emotion is impossible, and that even the most convincing performances are only copies of copies of reality. The characters in The Rehearsal are soulless, their speech is overwrought and scripted, and the heart of the novel remains elusive.
Though often frustrating, The Rehearsal is nevertheless a fascinating puzzle. Catton depicts the politics of teenage girls with acuity, satirizes our contemporary culture of public grief, and pushes the limits of the novel’s form.